Writing Genre Fiction – part one

Please don’t let your detective cat smoke. Or Vape. It’s not good for them and ruins their fur.

I enjoy writing in a number of different styles and genres, but I’m a cosy mystery gal through and through. Even when I try writing a different genre, at some point my murderous instincts take over and drown out any other attempt to jump generic ship.  Maybe I’ve written myself into a plot-corner and I’m not sure what to do; or I’m bored with the sweet romance I’m writing; or things are going all too easily for one character or another in my family saga; or my hologram’s new spacecraft is too fast, too shiny, everything is just soooooo perfect out there in the nebula, and there’s nothing for it: someone has to die.

I think it was Raymond Chandler who said (my paraphrase) ‘If in doubt, bring in someone with a gun’.

But there are so many sub-categories within all the main genres these days, and the Crime/Thriller genre is no exception.

For cosy mystery novels, some of the many subgenres include: international mystery, private investigators, women detectives, medical, legal, police procedural, technothrillers, and hard-boiled. The hard-boiled mystery, for example, is what is often referred to as Noir, or gum-shoe crime. They have evolved from the classics of the 40s and 50s and tend to be more graphic, violent, and unconventional. The detective is usually an anti-hero, with all kinds of issues, anything goes, and the grittier and grislier the book is, the better. The dialogue is bitty and abbreviated. There is a lot of swearing, shouting and people get ‘whacked’ or ‘rubbed out’. Often the end of the hard-boiled mystery is less cut-and-dried, leaving loose ends and a sense of a hollow victory, or a kind of ‘I’ll get you next time! On the upside, the men often wear nice hats. Like a Fedora or maybe a Trilby.

The cosy mystery genre is a world apart from the hard-boiled mystery. The cosy is a type of traditional murder mystery with it roots in the Golden Age of mystery writing as penned by Agatha Christie, Gladys Mitchell, Dorothy L Sayers, Ngaio Marsh, Patricia Wentworth and many, many more. (If you fancy reading a bit more about that, please take a look at this article, or this one, both from guest author Elizabeth Roy recently.)

The plot of a cosy often revolves around social situations, perhaps a house party or dinner, as cosies commonly feature the wealthier classes at play, with undercurrents of malice lurking discreetly behind curtains or across the bridge-table. The relationships represented tend to be of a conventional, traditional type, and the novels are usually set in the present or the recent past. The hard-boiled or noir can be more experimental, and is well-suited to futuristic, non-traditional and even non-earth settings.

Cosy means exactly that, these books are pure entertainment, with nothing too terrifying, nothing too realistic or traumatising. It’s more of an intellectual puzzle than a brawl. In the cosy, the story is all about unravelling the central mystery, to find out whodunit by solving clues and working alongside the story’s detective to find out the truth behind a crime, nearly always a murder*. Cosies will feature good believable characters without a great deal of introspection and issues. Usually there are only one or two main characters, and a host of minor characters, individualised to a greater or lesser extent. There will be a twisty, ingenious plot, and a keep-‘em-guessing array of clues and red herrings. Readers are expected to read between the lines in every conversations and to observe character behaviour minutely and with suspicion.

The cosy does not feature gory murder scenes or long descriptions of stomach-clenching forensic information. The cosy does not include explicit sex or stronger bad language. There may be some saucy shenanigans but nothing too graphic happens ‘on-stage’, any ‘filth’ is conducted behind carefully closed doors, even if someone is listening at the keyhole or watching from the tree outside the window. Life lessons are not usually part of the cosy mystery, nor should you expect comments on social issues or deeply moving emotional scenes. Life is pretty good in the cosy mystery–for everyone except the perpetrator and the victim of course. Here again, in the cosy, the victim is not likely to suffer agonies or torture; death is usually contrived in a quick and often ingenious manner.

You must always be on the alert for clues and red herrings

Usually, though not always, the main protagonist is the sleuth who is going to solve the mystery for us, or should I say, with us. They will likely–though not always–be an amateur detective, often someone involved on the periphery of the murder and they will feel compelled to find out the ‘truth’, either from standpoint of moral outrage, or more likely, out of sheer nosiness. Of late, it has become the trend to write themed cosies centred around a hobby or service. For example, a lot of stories are set in book shops, craft groups or cookery schools, and hotels, or they might involve pet-sitters, mediums, hairdressers, gardeners, wedding planners, or interior decorators. Sometimes the detective has a dog or cat who ‘helps’ them solve the mystery. Sometimes the detective IS a dog or cat. This allows the author to introduce a range of situations and characters, which is a great way to produce a detective and a series that will turn readers into avid fans and keep them coming back time and again.

The cosy is all about solving a puzzle, and reestablishing the status quo. The book should leave readers feeling ‘Ahh,’ at the end, not ‘OMG OMG!’ The reader should definitely be able to pat themselves on the back for an armchair- detective job well done. The cosy is intended purely for escapist fun, which is another reason why the author needs to write plenty of them–readers will close one book and immediately reach for the next.

*please note: other crimes are available! But a lot less entertaining.

Cosy mysteries should be more feel-good and with a sense of all is well at the end.

***

 

Dear whom (insert name of muse here)

The Muse is ‘In’.

This week, during a conversation with a nice marketing expert,  I was asked what or who was my target demographic. In other words, who do I imagine is reading my books, who am I aiming to reach? My initial reaction was probably the same as most writers: Everyone!

After all, we writers want to reach as many people as possible, don’t we?

It puts me in mind of board games where it says on the side of the box “fun for the whole family: aged 8 to 80”. (Sorry all you 81-year-olds, this game is not for you!) And that’s kind of how I feel about my books: I hope they will be enjoyed by people older than me and younger, and those who are my (approximate) age.

We want to reach as many as we can with our work, and are reluctant to rule anyone out. After all, we know that not all fantasy is read by young people, that not all family saga is read by older people. There are always plenty of people who don’t fit into marketing stereotypes. Lots of readers read a wide variety of genres and styles, from westerns to techno-thrillers, or from romance to locked room mysteries. We are reluctant to disregard them just because they are a bit different to what it says on the box.

But it would be naive of me to pretend that my books–much as I’d like them to–appeal to everyone. As I’ve thought about this carefully I’ve realised that probably 80% of my readers are over 45 years of age, female and prefer not to read anything too gory, full of explicit sexy shenanigans,  or are depressingly similar to real life. In fact, they are rather like me. (I’m sadly over 45. Way over. Way, way, WAY over. In fact, it would be nice to be 55 again. Heck, I’d kill to be 60 again…)

Find that perfect reader and tell them your story!

I’ve read several times this week about the importance of having in your mind an image of your perfect, or some might say, average reader, and of writing your book as if you are writing for that one person alone. The idea is that it makes it easier to keep your book focused, and to maintain consistency of POV (point of view) and tense.

I’d go a step further. Use a real person. Most of us have are lucky enough to have that one person we talk to about our writing, or one or two people. Most of us run ideas past them for feedback, let them read the messy first drafts, and sob on their shoulders when we get a stinking review. These are–hopefully–the people who can look us in the eye and say “Sweetie-pie, I love you but in all honesty, this book sucks. Write something else.” Let’s face it, you already know this person so well, you know what they like, what they don’t like, their favourite colour, and their beverage of choice. It’s simply good sense to use them as a sounding board during the writing process, not just after it.

Picture your muse when writing your story

Stephen King famously writes for his wife as she always reads his work before anyone else. In fact, quite a few writers give their work to a relative or close friend as ‘first contact’ or as writers usually call them, alpha readers.

BUT… If you don’t have someone in your life like that, you can create a mental image of a perfect reader in the same way as you create the rest of your book and people its pages with characters. Okay, so they won’t buy you a G & T or a giant, airport-duty-free-sized Toblerone (all donations gratefully received) when you’re feeling down, but they can still be useful. Give your person a name and an identity, with the quirks and foibles of real people. See them in your mind and address them as if they were real and present in the room with you. Speak to them directly as you write–tell them your story. If it helps you could even put at the top of the first page of your rough draft, “Dear (insert name here!), I am writing to tell you the story of…”

Just don’t forget to remove this bit later! 😀 

It doesn’t matter if your perfect reader is real or pretend, so long as they act as your creative muse, encouraging you to find your voice and get writing. You will be surprised at how much easier it is to focus on getting the framework of your story together with your new ‘audience’.

Not long now!

***

Job vacancy: armchair sleuth required

 

We at LaughingAtLife.org (not a real company!) have a new part-time vacancy for the role of armchair sleuth.

About this role:

You must be ready, willing and able to deliver timely advice to all suspects and potential victims. (But not too timely. Whilst we agree that forewarned is forearmed, if you’re too good at your job, you may find the number of victims drops alarmingly and you are left with no one to investigate/suspect which will lead to everyone at LaughingAtLife.org moving into the genre of romance. Or maybe Fantasy. No one at LaughingAtLife.org wants that to happen.)

 

You should be highly experienced in delivering comments such as ‘I knew that was going to happen’ or ‘You could write this (insert offensive vocabulary here) stuff yourself!’

If you have fancied taking part in shows such as Gogglebox, this job could be for you!

Essential qualifications:

Eagle-eyed attention to detail.

Nerves of steel.

Ability to pick locks with a hair pin or safety pin. Or a lock-pick.

Suspicious of everyone and everything.

Able to sniff out spurious motives and supply educated guesswork.

Possess own monocle or pince-nez or (misplaced) reading glasses.

Should be able to demonstrate a long-established habit of putting your fingertips together in a thoughtful manner before speaking.

You must have a luxurious moustache which you continually fondle or trim or dye a suspiciously dark colour. This role is open to all genders.

Or, failing the moustache, you may have a knitting fetish, and take knitting everywhere with you so that you are ready at a moment’s notice to disarm suspects with your apparent inoffensiveness and the sense of calmness that you radiate.

Must be able to recall a long series of villagey anecdotes you can crowbar into any conversation.

Must know the difference between a colonel and a major. Must equally be conversant with the differences between life-peers and the other sort, whatever they are.

Must be able to shake your head sorrowfully from time to time and say ‘The world is a very wicked place’ or make some quote about the fallibility of mankind.

Additional desirable qualifications:

Knowledge of Shakespeare, Milton and the Bible useful.

Must not be liable to scream or faint when confronted with a gory scene.

Encyclopaedic knowledge of deadly fungi and herbs could come in handy.

Must be able to dip fingertip in any powdery drug and taste it without dying and also must be able to identify said drug.

Salary:

No salary, just the reward of knowing you did your best, and served your country. Or, failing that, completed at least one matinee jacket for the new baby of a friend of a friend.

Perks:

No perks. There is no holiday allowance, as every time you go on holiday, someone will do something stupid and you will find yourself ‘embroiled’ in a new murder case. Even if you have a staycation, the grumpy colonel in the Old Manor House will upset someone who will then disguise themselves as a vicar and whack the colonel over the head 47 times with a fire-iron. You will of course realise that this was almost inevitable given the colonel’s manner, and also it will be just what happened with Mrs Castle’s little boy in Northampton when he skived off school that day.

There is no sick pay, apart from the satisfaction that your last days will be repackaged and sold as ‘Mr X’s, Ms Y’s or Mrs Z’s Final Cases’ with a picture of the actor who plays your role on the front cover.

How to Apply:

Seriously?

***

Notebooks as far as the eye can see…

Well, maybe not quite that many, but I certainly have a large number of them!

Like many people I have something of a notebook fetish. Don’t get me wrong, I’ve never (yet) met anyone in a dark alley who has glanced all around, and on me delivering the correct password (‘Narrow feint!’) then proceeded to open their raincoat to reveal notebooks in rows and rows of pockets, but let’s just say we can’t rule it out.

Not that I buy the super expensive ones with the magnetic closure or the little extra pockets at the front and back for – what? I can only imagine it’s more notes??? No, my notebooks are of the strictly practical and affordable type, that way I don’t feel bad for writing line after line of ‘What on earth am I going to write?’ or ‘Day 27: still haven’t written anything’. I am easily intimidated by superior quality notebooks, so I am content with Pukka Pads and Notemakers: good solid notebooks that won’t let you down.

We’ve had a massive clear-out at home recently – in fact we’ve had one large and two small skips outside to take away all our old junk that we’ve hoarded in the loft, the

shed, the various rooms of the house, and bizarrely, in the storage unit under the bed.

You know, ‘decluttering’ can be so addictive, you can end up by throwing out all sorts of stuff you had no intention of getting rid of. But the therapeutic effect of space clearing is so good you just can’t help yourself. I did however, hold on to a small box of old notebooks, because these are full of ‘amazing’ ideas and notes about forensic crime scenes, or how bodies decompose or how to clean up lots of blood that I felt I had to hold on to these ‘just in case’.

Yes, before you ask, I do still have my husband. He did not go in the skip. Neither did any of his toys tools/hobby equipment.

I used to have over 1,000 books in my office–which is really the little boxroom bedroom of our house. They lived on four bookcases. And the floor. And on all the little gaps between the shelves. And on the window sill. And the desk… Now, I only have two bookcases, and after one week, there are still no books on the floor. See, I can be organised! I’m not Marie-Kondo-organised, but let’s just say if you wanted to borrow a copy of A A Milne’s Chloe Marr, it would only take me half an hour of searching the shelves of my two bookcases before I remembered it had gone in the skip because the mould on it triggered my asthma, and all the middle pages were brown and falling out. Yep, it was a really old, falling-to-pieces copy. (Maybe a good excuse to by a new copy?)

(note to self: remember I still haven’t put books in alphabetical order by author’s surname – which is why it takes me half an hour to figure out I haven’t got something particular.)

Small, adorable and not at all annoying quirks of mine: I hate it when I have to divide books by the same author onto separate shelves. Sigh. If only all my Agatha Christie’s could budge up a bit to make room for the four books that won’t fit. It’s like splitting up a family.

Useful and interesting things I recently found in my old notebooks:

Great ideas for band names:

Rumble Bucket or maybe Rumble Pumpkin. I feel their repertoire would be mainly folk songs and the odd medley of Lonnie Donegan songs.

Jamzz – boy band from Nottingham

BizR – boy band from Matlock

Density’s Angels – girl band from Belper

Angel’s Dancities – girl band from Stoke on Trent

Great book titles:

Octavia Splendid and the… (insert name of weird item here) (sounds like a 1950s school story!) ( Or Harry Potter fan fic) (Would also make a great pen name if I was bold enough to go for it!)

A Gripping Madness

Strictly something: Strictly Confidential; Strictly Between Us, Strictly Business, Strictly Prohibited. (But these sound more like erotica titles than mysteries…)

Great pen names to try:

Marjorie Maynard ( I have a feeling she’d write about her time as a nurse during WWII)

Kym Spiers (gender neutral term, I bet she/he/they write fantasy)

Michael P Maynard (Marjorie’s brother, writes westerns but he’s a well-to-do Brit who’s never even been on a horse)

Edvard Spein – def writes Scandi-noir with cringe-inducing sex scenes.

Haralddottirs Dottirsdottir – writes Scandi-noir with no sex scenes, but lots of waves crashing onto beaches and tons of geysers erupting.

There have been some advantages to all this decluttering:

  1. WeBuyBooks sent me some money for the books they agreed to buy from me. Thanks guys!
  2. I now have actual space on my desk, there is room for me to sit there and do work!!!!
  3. I now have an excuse to reclutter.
  4. I feel so much happier now I can see the floor again and remind myself that the carpet is still that yucky beige colour.
  5. There are now only 27 spiders in my office instead of the 346 there originally. Less competition = more flies for everyone.
  6. I can reach the window. This will probably lead to the arrival of more spiders.

Marie Kondo might not be proud of me, but at least she’d have to admit I gave it my best!

But I still prefer to sit in a caff and stuff my face whilst pretending to write

***

Autumn brings renewal

I know I say this every year, but for me, it is not Spring, but Autumn and Winter that form my season of creativity. I have no idea why this is. I don’t know why, but for me, autumn is not the season for rest and consolidation, but of flights of imagination taking wings. I get quite excited about the approach of autumn and winter. Maybe it’s the cuddly jumpers, I don’t know.

It seems as though the rest of the world is full of new life in the Spring. Is it because I’m an October baby, my lifecycle naturally goes from Autumn onwards? Or because when we lived in Brisbane, October was in the Spring? But how can five years there undo the habits of the other fifty-six years I’ve lived in the Northern Hemisphere? Or maybe it’s because for parents everywhere in the UK, Autumn is when the children go back to school and you at last get two minutes to sit in silence and just enjoy hearing – nothing. Ah, bliss!

New ideas are taking shape, even before the old ideas have been put to bed. I’m thinking about what I want to say in a new story. I’m having a wonderful time creating book covers, and though I’m struggling to come up with new titles, I have some ideas to mull over.

I’m always drawn to old stuff, I’m drawn backwards into the past. I’m thinking of long print frocks, ladies in beads, feathers in their hair, tea-dances, afternoon picnics on wide sweeping lawns, croquet. I’m thinking of couples dancing on a veranda under the stars, the doors open to let out the soft lamplight and the music from the gramophone. The music is softened by distance and the soft evening breeze ruffles hair.

I’m thinking rural, villagey, fields, water, trees. I’m thinking of sorrow and haunting, of deeds never talked of, of the guilty secrets of the past. I’m thinking of shame and sacrifice, I’m humming old pastoral songs and rhymes, Scarborough Fair, children’s songs and folk songs, ‘Bobby Shafto(e) Went To Sea, He’ll Come Back And Marry me… Bonny Bobby Shafto(e).’ Or the old folk song and pop hit from the 70s, Whiskey in the Jar – ‘When I was going over/the Cork and Kerry mountains…I saw Captain Farrell and his money he was counting…’’

I’m remembering the duplicitous nature of the minstrel, wandering, legitimately able to plant one foot in each camp, never on any side but his own. A useful means for conveying information, often ill-gotten. And he can sing out in public everyone’s secrets, and how can you stop a man doing that?

I’m thinking of myths and legends, hillsides cloaked in mist, an unseen bird calling in the gloom, of the soft insinuating sound of the wind, like a sigh, like a breath, or like a dragon’s terrible approach. I’m thinking about the returning home of the prodigal, how we carry the past with us, inside, even when we are looking forward and moving on, something draws us ever back.

I am thinking, staring at the falling leaves, driven across the grass by a pushing wind, I’m lost in my thoughts. I am thinking of long ago, of people who may not have existed, but who could come into being in my imagination. I see images in my mind, people, objects, places, and weave stories about these imaginary characters.

I am thinking of a man at a window staring out, his mind working on things he cannot put into words. What should he do? Has the time for action finally arrived?

I’m thinking of a woman, always waiting, wringing her hands in front of the window, her own shadow cast out across the lamplit stones of the yard. When will he return? Will he ever return? The waiting woman. The unspeaking man.

I’m thinking of a boy coming over the hill. Of grass, green, long, dewy. Of the sun, soft, golden, gentle as a mother’s hand, just touching his hair, his shoulder of his white cotton shirt. How long has he been away? How much has changed? Will anything ever change?

If I never have another new idea, I’ve already got enough to keep me writing for the next twenty years. I only hope that’s possible.

‘Now fades the glimmering landscape on the sight,/And all the air a solemn stillness holds.’ Thomas Gray’s Elegy.

Autumn – not for sleeping but for creating anew.

***

Finding inspiration – coming soon to a cafe near you!

I often talk about sitting in cafes, notebook and pen in front of me, along with a cappuccino and – ooh, naughty – a bit of cake. It’s my favourite thing.

Yes, I know we have coffee at home. And even – occasionally, cake, or I could buy a supermarket cake and eat a slice at home for a fraction of the cost of a cafe. Or, I could bake a cake of my very own – it could be any size, shape or colour. I could have any flavour I like, and it could be a tray-bake, a torte, a good solid fruit cake with cherries on top, a long sugary loaf oozing with bananas or dates. It could be a sponge with ganache or cream or even just jam in the middle. It could have nuts on the top, or frosting, or strawberries in a creamy heap.

There are just two problems with that: 1. I’m a terrible cook. And 2, that wouldn’t inspire me to write. Which is, after all, the whole point of this exercise.

I love to go to cafes with my family, singly or en masse. But those are occasions for talking and laughing, not times for me to be alone with my thoughts. And as we know, ‘You can’t write if you’re never alone.’ (It was Winifred Watson who said that. She was a very successful author in the 1930s who gave up writing once she married and had children. Her book Miss Pettigrew Lives For A Day was made into a film starring Ciaran Hinds and Frances McDormand and I highly recommend it.)

Also, I love people-watching. Sitting in a cafe is a bit like sitting in a theatre, with the play going on around you. For around £6 or £8 you can get a lovely piece of cake, a gorgeous big cup of frothy coffee (and not have to wash up the dishes afterwards) and a stage-side seat to LIFE. Just make sure you’ve got plenty of paper and a couple of spare pens.

TIP: Never, ever tap people on the arm, ask them to repeat what they’ve just said so you have more time to write it down, don’t ask them how to spell their auntie’s dog’s name, and never, ever say out loud, ‘Wow, he’s a moron, you should dump him’ or ‘How dare she say that to you!’ or that kind of thing. People don’t mind you watching them discreetly, just don’t make it too obvious.

I’m often asked where I get my ideas. But inspiration comes not from one, but from many different places. It’s more that ideas come looking for me than I go looking for them. I’m incredibly nosy about other people, and I am an incurable people-watcher. This fuels my imagination and leads me to ask myself questions, develop scenarios until… ooh, look, a chapter from a story!

I don’t advocate, as a writing tutor in Brisbane once told a group of creative writing students, that you should actually follow people to get ideas for your story or to experience what it’s like to ‘shadow’ someone a la detective fiction. BUT I must admit I do covertly eavesdrop and watch people, especially in a coffee-shop situation. I don’t actually record conversations or film people, though it is SOOOO tempting.

Tip: If you sit in a cafe or restaurant with your notebook open in front of you and your pen tapping on your chin as you ponder, I guarantee staff will panic-tidy the whole area near you, smile and ask if you’re well, and possibly ask if there’s anything else they can get you – even in self-service cafes. At first I didn’t know why that was, now I’ve realised it’s because they think I am a food critic! Once I made the mistake of saying that I was a writer, and got a look that was half eye-roll and half disgusted sneer. They left me alone immediately.

And so that’s why I go to cafes and eat cake. What’s your excuse?

***

Life Springs Ever Green

I’ve been thinking about colour(s).

There’s a surprisingly large amount of theory about colour. Colours have meanings, they create feelings and emotions in us. So much so, you can have colour therapy, where you sit in a room (white I assume, or maybe completely dark) and they bombard you with light in the colour you require to produce the effect needed. I quite like that idea. Maybe I’ll try it sometime.

Picasso had his Blue Period, then his Rose Period, where these colours dominated his work in a range of hues.

I don’t know if other artists, or writers, have times of colour. I see it in my life from time to time, a particular colour seems to draw me, or mean more, or stand out or in some way influence me. This year my colour is green.

When I was a teenager, wanting to wear teenager-black all the time, my mother nagged me out of it. She associated the colour black with depression, grief and mourning, with oppression and poverty. So I can understand why she hated to see me swathed neck to ankle in black. But it’s a colour people–especially teenagers–wear when they are still trying to find their identity, or when they are part of a crowd of others who all wear black, it ‘goes’ with that mind-set of searching earnestness.

And of course we always say black is a slimming colour, and if you are a larger lady like me, you’ll find huge chunks of a retailer’s range of clothes are only available in black. It’s also the colour of formality so you find loads of people wearing black in offices, you see everywhere the ladies in their black trousers with a shirt or jumper or a jacket and slinky top. I used ot have a ton of black ‘work’ trousers. I think it’s also a practical colour, again in clothes, seeming to show the passage of time less noticeably than other colours and going with pretty much everything, and suiting pretty much every complexion.

Red is the colour of guts and courage, of anger, of ‘Stop!’ and ‘Attention’. Red used to be associated with masculinity, no doubt due to its use in military uniforms, of blood, of bravery. For this reason, (I’m talking about 120 years ago) pink was the accepted normal colour for baby boys as a kind of watered down red suitable for little men. Yep. Pink was for boys, blue was for girls.

Why? Well as we all know females are at constant risk of madness and hysteria due to their female body parts, and therefore have to be swathed in blue from earliest babyhood to calm them down. Blue is a calming colour!

I think it was a member of the royal household around the 1910s who first defied convention and clothes her daughters in pink – and thus a new convention was born. Now, as soon as we see a baby in pink, we know it’s a little girl.

I can remember when my daughter was very small, and clothed (partially at least) in pink, an elderly lady said to me ‘what a beautiful baby, what’s his name?’ And I smiled and replied, all the while thinking silently to myself, ‘mad old bat, clearly she’s a girl, look at all the pink!’

Yellow is another colour I love, but depending on the shade, doesn’t always suit me. Yellow is believed to promote higher thinking, creativity, reasoning and logic. It’s also a happy uplifting colour, as we know when we get a lift every time we catch sight of a patch of daffodils after the dreariness of winter.

For a long time, I’ve been wearing black, grey and blue (jeans mainly), with white or occasionally burgundy accents.

but for the last few weeks, I’ve been craving green. I’ve dusted off my existing green tee-shirt, and bought another one. And I’m enjoying looking at greenery in pictures. I’m not looking at beach scenes (blue & sort of sandy brown), it’s the green of leaves and grass etc that appeals ot me. I get a kind of little ‘bong’ in my chest when I see them (Remember Lovejoy and the sensation he used to get in his chest when he ‘divvied’ a true antique?)

So I’m giving in to my green period – a time of rebirth, perhaps, or of tranquil moments, rest and recovery. or a time of peace and a return to nature? Who knows? I just know that this is what is feeding my soul at the moment.

Of course green is also the colour of jealousy – the ‘green-ey’d monster’ of Shakespeare’s Othello. Or of inexperience and innocence – also Shakespeare, (Anthony and Cleopatra)  ‘My salad days. When I was green in Judgement.’

But I’m ignoring that side, I don’t think I’m particularly a jealous person. And I’m too old to be inexperienced, although I love to learn new things. So I’ll just embrace the restorative and peaceful nature of Green.  Have you found the colour that fills you with joy?

Here are a few quotations about ‘green’:

Green is the prime color of the world, and that from which its loveliness arises.

Pedro Calderon de la Barca (17th century Spanish dramatist)

 

The garden of love is green without limit and yields many fruits other than sorrow or joy. Love is beyond either condition: without spring, without autumn, it is always fresh.’

Rumi (Persian poet from 13th century)

 

‘When the green woods laugh with the voice of joy, And the dimpling stream runs laughing by; When the air does laugh with our merry wit, And the green hill laughs with the noise of it.’

William Blake (UK Poet/Artist 1700s-1800s)

 

‘All theory, dear friend, is gray, but the golden tree of life springs ever green.’

Johann Wolfgang von Goethe (German author/poet 1700s-1800s)

***

 

Doors of the imagination

Believe it or not, behind that silk-covered chair is a silk-covered door which houses a stunning ‘secret’ bathroom built specially for King George V in 1925, and never used by him, because his visit was cancelled.

When is a door not a door?

Ok I know we all know that old joke. But when I was walking around a beautiful country house recently, I was struck (not literally) by all the different styles of door, and I thought about what they could mean.

 

(I should just quickly add that I was completely convinced I’d written a previous blog post about doors/portals, but after wasting half an hour trying to find it, I’m now convinced it must have been a dream…???)

A rather scary back door at Calke Abbey. For the use of staff, obvs, no posh people here.

Doors. The thing is, a door is an everyday piece of equipment, if I can put it like that, and yet it contains the power to take us from one place, from the present, to a different place, the future. We know that when we open a door, we can move from one space to another.  Sometimes it’s as if we were moving into another world.  In fantasy literature, doors are seen as portals or magical spaces of transition.

But even in a country house, the door takes us from one sphere of life to a completely different one, say, from the sumptuous drawing room into a back hallway used purely for the convenience of staff, or from a dusty, intriguing library out into a beautiful garden.

Sometimes a door won’t open because it’s not a real door. This one is just to make the room appear symmetrical, and doesn’t open, as it’s just a bit of wood stuck onto a solid wall.

Doors are ordinary, and yet special. In books, or TV shows, or films etc, doors have the power to transform our lives purely because they exist. All the time you and I are on this side of the door, and the door is closed, we can’t be absolutely certain what we will find if we open the door. It might be that we will find dinner is ready and on the table, or we might find a fairytale castle perched on a precarious mountain-top.  A bit like Schrodinger’s Cat, we can’t be sure until we open the door which of the alternatives are actually before us.

A beautiful curved door to fit a curved wall. This is at Kedleston Hall.

What if we can’t even open the door?

What if we find something unexpected, even unwelcome, on the other side of the door?

We won’t know until we open it. And by then, it could be too late.

In real life, we will open the door and find the washing machine has finished our towels, but in literature, in the country of our imagination, we could be anywhere.

 

Sometimes doors show you not just the next room, but the one after that and the one after that. You are looking through them all at once as if they are a series of views, of points of interest on a tour.

So literature has a lot to tell us about doors, it seems. I’ve only shared a small number of door-related quotes here, if you are desperate, I’m sure you will find more. Or maybe you’ll catch yourself watching a little more closely as the characters in your current reading material or viewing material each have their entrances and their exits, and move on the stage of your imagination. Like me you might be struck by just how often a character moves through a door and ‘something’ happens.

And lastly, I hope you won’t mind me adding my own work into this illustrious company:

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Rereading old work: the critical self

Gary Cooper in a gloomy mood ever since reading his first novel again after ten years.

I read a blog post elsewhere this week, in which a writer talked about rereading a book he had written and published years earlier, and his reaction to it. That set me thinking.

How do I react to reading my own work after a break?

I think it’s a bit like looking at baby photos of yourself, or making a special cake or a meal for a particular occasion. Or indeed whenever any of us do anything creative or out of the norm. Maybe you’re not like me, but I know a lot of people are just like me: a bit inclined to only see their faults, to see the wonky bits, the bits that had to be patched up at the last minute, the crooked hem of the new dress or the edge where the cake got stuck in the tin and you had to put a bit extra icing on there to disguise it. We tend to be overly self-critical, which is sometimes a good thing: we strive that little bit harder to improve and to do well, but on the other hand, it makes it hard to feel proud of our achievements or to accept praise from others.

When I read things I wrote years ago, I feel quite uncomfortable. I am sometimes pleasantly surprised and think, ‘ah, this isn’t as bad as I expected’, but there are definitely times when I groan to myself and wonder what on earth I was thinking. I cringe at some of the laboured metaphors, the overly descriptive passages and my almost fanatical use of The Three: I tend to group my descriptions in threes. In fact if you browse, read or peruse any of my works, writings or output, you will definitely, absolutely, surely notice, observe and see that a lot of what I write is grouped into threes! Who knew?

I’ll just quickly fix this bit. Oh, and this bit. Oh now that bit doesn’t work, oh well, I’ll just…

Well, I did for one, although not until someone pointed it out to me. I try to weed some of them out, unless I am deliberately emphasising a point, and keep them to a minimum. But years ago… No, they are there in all their triplicated glory.

As is my terrible grammar – I just never really know, what, to do with those, commas,.

I used adverbs liberally too (haha, like that!) but I’m not quite so obsessive about those. I don’t mind the odd one, whereas many authors absolutely scour their pages and destroy them without mercy. I like the odd adverb. Sometimes an active verb can be a bit too much, especially if the writer uses loads of them. I’d rather read ‘she said hastily’ than ‘she gabbled’ or ‘rattled’.

Stop authorsplaining and let me read your damn book!

What I don’t like is a ton of adjectives. You know when you read something like, ‘The old sprawling ramshackle creeper-covered house had a battered and pitted, badly-fitting oak door and four tiny grimy windows that peeped out from beneath an elderly ragged thatched roof in much need of repair.’ Just tell me it’s an old house in poor repair, I can furnish the rest from my own imagination. I just haven’t got the energy to read through tons of adjectives. the same with character descriptions or the characters’ clothes. I don’t really care if their shoes are hand-made in Italy from the finest, most supple leather and stitched by angels from their own hair. Just tell me they cost a fortune, I’ll get it.

It needs a bit of work…

The other problem with old work is that it can have you itching to reach for a pen and begin ‘improving’ or ‘correcting’ it. But is that a good idea?

One of the advantages of self-publishing is that you can tweak your books if you need to, with little disruption to the reading public, to stock availability and relatively negligible damage to your finances. Not so the trad-pubbed, of course. There a revision might cost a packet both in cash terms and in terms of reprinting, delays, supply hiccups etc, and will only be undertaken if absolutely necessary. But an Indie book is not too difficult to fix if there are issues with it that are likely to lead to poor reviews, which might have a knock-on effect on sales.

You can’t go through history deleting all the anoraks and t-bar sandals. Sadly.

So I don’t think it’s a problem if you correct an annoying typo or an inconsistency that is mentioned a few times in reviews. That’s just courtesy. But if you give into the urge to revise, it can be quite hard to stop tinkering, and then before you know it you’ve changed the book so much it could be a whole new project, or you can actually break it, leaving gaping plot holes and chapters that no longer hang together.

I think when it comes down to it, with earlier work, you just have to accept it for what and how it is, like your wonky teeth in that old photo. Acceptance is not always easy, and to leave your old book alone is sometimes the hardest decision to make.

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Tropelessly devoted to mystery books

If you read romance as a book category, you are probably aware of the concept of a trope.

A trope is, in a way, a kind of cliché or a stereotype. Although those words have a negative connotation. It’s more a set idea or plot outline that is used many times over, hopefully with variations on the theme. There is the Cinderella trope, or we might call it a rags-to-riches story. There is the second-chance trope, or another is the Romeo-and-Juliet ‘doomed love’ trope.

And so it is with mysteries. We all know about country house or closed community mystery.

There are quite a few often-repeated ideas. Each time the story is told, we hope the author will bring their own new slant on a familiar trope. Agatha Christie was of course the Queen of the trope: want a closed community? How about a familiar one: the country house mystery? For example, The Mysterious Affair At Styles, or The Murder of Roger Ackroyd. that’s all very well, but there are a variations on the country house. think of Murder On The Orient Express. The country house is exchanged for a snowbound train. Or you might prefer Death On The Nile – a boat instead of a train instead of a manor house.  Or what about Death In The Air – a plane instead of a boat instead of a train instead of a manor house. Or a hotel: At Bertram’s Hotel.

They all work brilliantly: a closed, finite circle of suspects the detective can investigate one by one, and eliminate until the only one left is the killer. Though of course, knowing Christie, the killer is usually someone we’ve investigated then eliminated, just to put the reader off the scent.

Or the romance genre’s trope, doomed love: this works well in mystery too. (Spoiler alert) I’m thinking of Death In The Clouds again, and this is also a second trope for Death On The Nile, and another book I love, Evil Under The Sun. These all have doomed lovers, doomed because they must suffer the consequences of their actions, or doomed because one of them is manipulated by the object of their affection, who is not what he or she seems.

I love the combination of two or more tropes in the same book. These can work well together to muddy the waters a bit for the armchair detective, making us focus on the wrong thing and miss finding the killer before Poirot or Miss Marple.

Other great tropes for the mystery genre include:

The Evil Victim: seemingly bringing their dreadful fate upon themselves and supplying us with a large cast of suspects and a large variety of motives. I love this one! These can be a spiteful domineering mother – Appointment With Death – or a tyrannical retired colonel living in a village –  The Murder At The Vicarage.

Or you may prefer what I call the Not Quite Eden trope: A number of people nip off for a well-deserved holiday, sometimes in an exotic location (Death In Paradise, I’m looking at you) but – who knew – they take their problems or issues with them, and in the summer heat, things come quickly to a head. with disastrous consequences.  Here we have our old friend Evil Under The Sun again, and Christie’s great Miss Marple book, A Caribbean Mystery.

There’s the Locked Room trope. This crops up in Christie’s Hercule Poirot’s Christmas, in the short story, Dead Man’s Mirror and another of my favourites, the novella, Murder In The Mews. The novel And Then There Were None has also been likened to a locked room mystery but in my view this falls under the closed community trope rather than locked room as such.

There’s the Disappearing Weapon trope. I like this one too! (Look away now to avoid another spoiler!) Think of the removed trip-wire in Dumb Witness, for example, which led lesser mortals than Hercule Poirot to believe a ‘mere’ accident was the cause of death.

There is also the Missing Victim trope, one which is another favourite of mine, and is used a couple of times in Robert Thorogood’s Death In Paradise.

There are many more.

Here are a few other trope ideas that you might find interesting:

Revenge trope: Where the perpetrator is exacting revenge on parents, on siblings, on children, or any love or business rival who thwarts their ambition. This is probably as much a motive as it is a trope. This may include the Fake Reunion/Reconciliation. And often too, the Disguised Persona/Hidden Agenda. (Think Christie’s Pocket Full Of Rye)

Spiritual Assassin: This trope includes someone who feels they have a mission from God to punish wrong-doers. (Dan Brown uses this one a few times…)

The Unreliable Narrator: notoriously employed by Christie in The Murder of Roger Ackroyd. Also used more recently in Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn. This is not always a popular trope with the reader who can feel a bit cheated – or maybe it’s more like embarrassment at being duped? When I read Roger Ackroyd for the first time, I was amazed and thrilled by being so brilliantly deceived.

caronallanfiction.comI also enjoy the Double Trouble trope- where there are two different, often unrelated, independent killers. This makes it very much easier to misdirect the reader, fill the story with convincing alibis and make red herrings a doddle.

My absolute favourite mystery trope – and one that I use in my Friendship Can Be Murder trilogy – is the Whydunit. This is the style made famous in the TV series Columbo. You know who did it, you see it right from the start, but the joyous thing about the story is watching the often-ridiculed, apparently shambling detective put together their case with meticulous attention to detail and finally confront the murderer with overwhelming evidence that they are unable to refute. It’s all about the discovery of motive and opportunity, and of course, the search for clues. I love, love love this trope. And it has the merit of being easier to write for the author!!! There is no concealment, only great attention to detail.

How many can you think of? What’s your favourite?

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